by Ann Leckie
“If you’re going to make a desperate, hopeless act of defiance you should make it a good one.”
Given its many accolades, I thought it would be impossible for Ancillary Justice to live up to its reputation. It surpassed it.
It's a little hard to describe Ancillary Justice. I've seen it called a space opera, and I suppose it is. I've seen it called a dystopia, and I suppose it is that as well. But to me, it came across primarily as a love story. Not a romance, mind you, but a love story, a tale of devotion and perseverance and friendship and heartache. Or maybe two love stories, and unusual ones at that. Love stories packed into a complex and imaginative far-future world and imperialistic alien culture.
This book is perhaps most notorious for its use of pronouns. Esk, the narrator and an ancillary body of a ship's artificial intelligence, comes from a culture that doesn't have a concept of gender. She simplifies matters by speaking of everyone with female pronouns, even when she is speaking of cultures who do care about gender, although she occasionally makes a blind guess when speaking to others:
Since we weren’t speaking Radchaai I had to take gender into account—Strigan’s language required it. The society she lived in professed at the same time to believe gender was insignificant. Males and females dressed, spoke, acted indistinguishably. And yet no one I’d met had ever hesitated, or guessed wrong. And they had invariably been offended when I did hesitate or guess wrong.
It is disorienting at first, and is as good as an implicit bias test at demonstrating our many preconceptions about gender. Then it just becomes part of the story. The issues of identity experienced by the main antagonist are equally pointed, but no less effective for it.
I think your experience with the book will depend on how well you deal with the pronouns, whether you like flashbacks, and how much you warm to the characters. Personally, I found myself empathising deeply with Esk; apart from anything else, she has a subtle sense of humor I thoroughly enjoyed. But the core of this book is its ideas.
Apart from gender, the story explores dehumanization, and civilization, and righteous certainty. Esk's world is made up of people who believe they are doing the right thing, even if perhaps this is because they don't look too closely at the ramifications of their actions. The Radchaai are an imperialistic culture; they invade to bring civilization--the very word "Radchaai" means civilization-- to other worlds.
“Any measures are justified in the name of civilization.”
And, of course, the Radchaai are so invested in their culture that they cannot see the inherent injustices in the system.
"Here's the truth: luxury always comes at someone else’s expense. One of the many advantages of civilization is that one doesn’t generally have to see that, if one doesn’t wish."
I don't think anyone would call the story subtle, but the way it explores these issues is multifaceted and nuanced.
Ancillary Justice is a beautiful book. For me, at least, it fully deserved every last bit of the hype. On to Ancillary Sword.